Review: An Irish Hitman Juggles Murder With Parenthood

This cover image released by Brash Books shows "The Lemon Man" by Keith Bruton. (Brash Books via AP)
This cover image released by Brash Books shows "The Lemon Man" by Keith Bruton. (Brash Books via AP)

“The Lemon Man” by Keith Bruton (Brash Books)

Patrick Callen, a Dublin, Ireland hitman with a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, stays organized by making lists. On his first day in Keith Bruton’s debut novel, the list includes:

— Buy Food

— Sleep With Olivia

— Visit Ma

— Kill Henry O’Neil

Patrick, who navigates Dublin’s streets on his 1950s Modello Oro bicycle, was pedaling home from the market when he stopped off to deal with O’Neil, a drug runner and junkie who owed his supplier more than he could pay. Worried that someone might “nick” his bag of lemons, Patrick slipped it off the handlebars and took it with him to do the hit. From then on, he was known as The Lemon Man.

The details of the O’Neil hit precisely convey Patrick’s attitude about his chosen profession.

“I reach back into my shorts and pull out the gun, shooting little Henry O’Neil dead center in the forehead, bulls-eye. He falls back into the chair with a bullet in his head. I touch my top lip with the top of my tongue. My moustache is getting long... I scratch my head with the silencer. It’s warm.”

But just when you’re sure that Patrick is a psychopath, he discovers an infant in O’Neil’s filthy drug den, can’t bear to leave it there, and takes it with him.

Suddenly, the antihero of “The Lemon Man” is struggling to change diapers and trying to figure out what toddlers eat. But he’s also got a job to do. There are people who need killing and others willing to pay to have it done. So he finds himself taking the baby along on the job or leaving him in the care of his equally flummoxed girlfriend, Olivia, whose work as a prostitute doesn’t bother Patrick in the least.

Caring for an infant while working as a hired killer is not a good mix, and the inevitable complications soon threaten to get Patrick and Olivia killed. The result is a fast-paced crime novel that is both hilarious and hardboiled, its main character both ruthless and oddly sympathetic.

“I don’t care what you think,” Patrick says. “I take care of (i.e. kill) people when they don’t obey the rules. The rules of the street.”

Bruton’s tight, colorful prose captures the idiosyncrasies of Irish English without ever leaving American readers behind, every unfamiliar word clear in contest. And his hard-eyed portrayal of Dublin street life is so vivid readers can smell the streets and feel the cold rain on their faces.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”